Just yesterday in conversation, I recalled how the novelty of my grandmother’s colour television set in the early 1970s was something that made Christmas Day even more of a break with the monochrome norm as a child. As well as the inevitable sparkly spectacle of ‘Top of the Pops’, Christmas Day TV then always seemed to feature a circus as well, something that was brought to life even more when viewed in colour. I’d seen a circus in the flesh around the age of four, housed in a huge Edwardian tram-shed known as the Queen’s Hall in Leeds; all I can really remember about it is a tiger and a shapely woman in a tight blue leotard struggling to contain her curves.

A little later, around the age of ten, I saw my second and last circus, this time in a more traditional big top, and the memory is more vivid. I felt sorry for the sad and shabby-looking lions forced into performing tired old stunts. I’d experienced a similar sensation when seeing a caged puma at Blackpool Zoo a couple of years earlier, pacing up and down its tiny cell as visitors passed it by en route to the more glamorous kings of the jungle. Even then, and despite Johnny Morris’s wacky antics as a pretend zookeeper on ‘Animal Magic’, I felt there was something wrong and quite cruel about wild animals being removed from their natural habitat and being put on display. Zoos appeared less antiquated and sadistic than circuses, but the attractions were still imprisoned.

Two stories in the news this past week have brought that thought back to my mind. One concerned a turtle at a park in Thailand which has had to have over 900 coins it had swallowed removed from its stomach. The operation took seven gruelling hours and was the consequence of visitors to the park tossing said coins into the pool containing the turtle; they apparently believed doing so would bring them luck ala the Trevi Fountain in Rome; but it didn’t bring the poor sea creature much luck, causing a heavy ball to form in its belly weighing 111bs and cracking its shell. Three Coins in the Fountain doesn’t sound quite so romantic when racked up to Nine-hundred.

The other story received more publicity, being on home ground. It was at South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria, a location with a shameful record that is staggering to study. A report published last week revealed that, of the 1,500 animals held captive there, almost 500 died between 2013 and 2016, some of causes such as hypothermia and emaciation. The annual death rate of animals was estimated at around 12% and the catalogue of deaths reads like a roll-call of appalling ineptitude and neglect.

An African spurred tortoise died of electrocution by electric fencing; a pair of snow leopard cubs were discovered partially eaten; a fennec fox died from getting its head stuck in a wire fence; a black and white ruffled lima died after making its way into a wolf enclosure; the body of a squirrel monkey was even stumbled upon, decomposing behind a radiator.

Government inspectors wrote the report into the awful conditions at South Lakes Safari Zoo and recommended the local authorities refuse a renewal of its licence. Their conclusions highlighted ‘overcrowding, poor hygiene, poor nutrition, lack of suitable animal husbandry and a lack of any sort of developed veterinary care’. Mercifully, the founder and owner of the zoo, David Gill (who already has a conviction for the escape of several sacred ibis) was refused the renewal of his license yesterday, but his utter unsuitability for the role hit the headlines long before the current crisis affecting the zoo did.

Only last summer, the zoo received a fine of £225,000 for breaches of health and safety regulations following the death of one of its zookeepers, Sarah McClay, who was mauled by a Sumatran tiger four years ago. The 24 year-old was attending to feeding and cleaning duties when attacked by the tiger, which only managed to get to her due to a broken bolt on the door dividing her from it in the enclosure. She was pronounced dead after being airlifted to hospital. David Gill’s response to the preventable tragedy was to blame McClay for not adhering to safety procedures.

The zoo licensing system appears to be a piece of essentially useless legislation when it comes to the likes of South Lakes Safari Zoo. It entrusts the responsibility of inspections to local authorities, and had not government inspectors visited the zoo following successive breaches of the law, perhaps its failings wouldn’t have been made public. They came to the conclusion that the owner Mr Gill should be prosecuted under the Animal and Welfare Act as well as being refused his licence; at least the latter has come to pass, but even though the zoo is now in the hands of Cumbria Zoo Company, the people running it are largely former employees of Mr Gill, and therefore oversaw the very things that have brought it into disrepute.

The Captive Animals Protection Society, a charity which advocates the abolition of all zoos, has held up the farce in Cumbria as indicative of the shambolic nature in which zoos are run in this country; it calls for South Lakes Safari Zoo to be closed down, and when one reads the litany of disasters credited to it, that would seem a valid demand.

Despite the employment of the word ‘safari’ in the name of this shockingly bad example of how to care for captive wild animals, it would seem the bona-fide safari park is generally the most humane manner for people who can’t afford to visit Africa to see such beautiful beasts in at least an approximation of their natural habitat. The zoo, like the circus, would today appear to be a redundant and irrelevant medium for viewing the natural world by proxy.

© The Editor